Saturday 8 June 2013

On re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson - two comments, and some remarks on Joseph Smith


From the middle 1990s for a decade, I was reading and re-reading Emerson with tremendous avidity - not only in a literary way, but as a guide for life.

Having not looked at him for several years, and not since I became a Christian, I have returned to re-read some favorite bits and pieces in the past couple of weeks - and was struck by two things.


1. Emerson is a really good writer; I mean really good. The quality of his prose is unique and unsurpassed (that is, other writers are equally good, but in different ways) - I find it elating, intoxicating, almost too powerful to bear for any length of time.

2. Emerson's anti-Christian agenda is now blazingly clear and obvious to me, from almost everything he ever wrote and said; as is his staggering egotism/ pride, and these are linked. Emerson's work is a vast and unbounded, extended assertion of himself, his potential and his adequacy against anyone or any thing (including God) that tries to constrain or direct it.


(Emerson was raised as a Unitarian and became a prominent Unitarian minister - and Unitarianism is already anti-Christian in its profoundest implications - although the first generation of Unitarians refused to acknowledge this, and generational inertia meant that the fundamental anti-Christanity of Unitarianism took a while to emerge. So, Emerson was never a Christian, although perhaps he supposed he was - but nonetheless he found the rebel sect of Unitarianism to be already stultifying, empty and spiritually dead: which was a just criticism since it amounted to merely a system of secular ethics and an ungrounded and unjustifiably exclusive usage of Christian scriptures and form loosely associated with an impersonal theistic God. Naturally this rapidly slid into exactly the kind of eclectic 'spirituality' - that we now term New Age - which Emerson pioneered with such glorious eloquence.) 


I conclude that Emerson is, exactly has his contemporaries saw him, a terribly perilous writer! - precisely because he is such a great writer, and has so many stunning insights - yet ultimately these are put to the service of a doctrine of such extreme, such total self-centredness that I struggle to comprehend it.


Perhaps Emerson's greatest and most valuable (and most often repeated) insight is that each person must appropriate the world for himself and in his own terms; a living religion (that is to say any true religion) simply cannot be just a following of rules and rituals.

To put it as Emerson did in an early work, to be properly alive, each individual must experience (again and again, day by day, indeed hour by hour) their own personal revelation - they must experience direct and divine communications of reality.

For Emerson this imperative was pretty-much the entire aim of life - so that the ideal life became in one sense that moment of revelation timelessly filling all; in another sense (because, experience seemed to show that these moments did come to an end) an incessant search for the next moment of revelation - life as a sequence of such moments.


But Emerson's error, which led him into paradox and the evil advocacy - if not practice - of Pride as a principle of life - as indeed the only principle of life; was to reject the past, to reject the unity of humanity, to perceive himself (his soul) as the only thing that was really real - to argue for a subjectivism so extreme as to amount almost to solipsism. 

In his burning desire to shed the constraints of history and society, which seemed to be shackling his imagination, and focus all meaning on his own individual moments of revelation (the total affirmation of Me! Here! Now!); Emerson destroyed the basis of humanity, of sharing, shape and purpose - and consequently his influence (among those who actually read what he wrote and try to live by it) has been substantially pernicious.


What was needed and what was necessary was to accept Emerson's assertion of the absolute necessity of personal revelation, albeit perilous, as an addition (or restoration) to Christianity.

This absolute and inflexible demand for modern, personal revelation, I perceive as the point of unity between Emerson and the other great long-term spiritual influence born in the United States at almost exactly the same time: Joseph Smith, the Mormon 'living prophet' of modern, latter day revelation.

Joseph Smith could have endorsed Emerson's cry by which he opened his first great published work Nature -

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories and criticism, The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?


The religious difference between Emerson and Smith is essentially that Emerson took this demand to behold God face to face, and enjoy an original relation to the universe as his sole aim and principle, while Smith added it (and its products, such as the Book of Mormon and his other collected revelations) to existing Christianity.

Smith thus achieved what Emerson, in his scandalous 1838 address to Harvard Divinity School, had declared was impossible:

I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, — to-day, pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder.  


Even as Emerson wrote his speech, Joseph Smith had already built a new city (the first of three) as headquarters for the saints in Kirtland, Ohio; and the years since the above words were spoken, Smith's 'Cultus' - with its 'new rites and forms' added-to, modifying, re-interpreting existing modes of Christianity - was (contrary to Emerson's characterization of it as 'vain') indeed 'established'; and has continued to grow into a major world religion - and has been neither a dead religion of pasteboard and fillagree (rather, a tremendously motivating religion which sustains great devoutness and other-worldliness), nor has it ended in madness and murder.

But, on the other hand, a stripped-down New Age version of Emerson's spirituality of individualism and subjectivism has merged with mainstream secular Leftism, and grown and grown to become the dominant mode of thought in the West almost entirely discarding Emerson in the process.

(And quite naturally so, since Emerson was not necessary to the development of New Age spirituality - rather he was a prophet, herald or advance guard of it.).

But what a fascinating divergence from such close roots and similar demands are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Smith - both emerging in the North Eastern corner of the USA in the 1830s!



The Crow said...

Perhaps you interpret this character's character as extreme in its self-centredness because you are incapable of knowing what he knew.
Extreme humility often appears to be extreme narcissism and ego, to extreme narcissists and egomaniacs.
Because where there is no attempt to appear as something one shouldn't appear to be, the missing appearance is seen as conceit.
When it is often no such thing.

Do you view Jesus as a self-centred narcissist, for his claiming to be God? If it were anyone else doing the claiming, then you probably would.

I understand perfectly, this phenomenon.
Many assume spiritual people would behave and appear in just such-and-such a way, and indeed, demand that they do. But any person who far transcends the observer's own level of spirituality, will be incomprehensible to the observer. And somewhat offensive, too.

I know nothing of Emerson, but I know how people operate. It's generally all-or-nothing.
Better, perhaps, to read without judging, if one is able. And allow the words, themselves, to move, or not move one, without judging the writer.

NC said...

The interesting thing is Joseph Smith was merely more closely following the Bible in his structuring of the church. Examples include the emphasis on prophesy, the division of men and women, the organization.

All of it was and remains closer to what is spelled out to do than any other denominations I know of.

Why, it's as if it matters whether someone actually follows the Bible.

I do like Emerson's focus on revelation. That is indisputable for a living tradition.

However that is also included in Mormonism. You can only really convert if you've had the experience of revelation from the Holy Ghost (though some may have the revelation and no longer join the fairly rigid LDS organization).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - As I am a Christian I know that Jesus WAS the Son of God - so He was simply telling the truth. That does not apply to anybody else (or, at least, not in the same sense).

With a writer of the power of Emerson (assuming the reader is susceptible to that power) one MUST read with judgment - either the reader surrenders wholesale, or else holds back somewhat.


@NC - of the interesting things which emerges from early Mormonism is the individuals like Sidney Rigdon (who shared revelations with Joseph) and Martin Harris (one of the 'three witnesses' to the gold plates) - on the one hand these broke with the mainstream Mormon church under JS - while on the other always maintaining their public witness to his being a true prophet and the existence of the gold plates.

Another example was Joseph's wife Emma Smith (who helped translate the BoM) who rejetced the later (Nauvoo) revelations of her husband, broke away from the main branch and formed the large and long lasting (but now essentially extinct) RLDS branch.

What is fascinating about such examples is to reveal something about human nature. People can witness miracles (events that they consistently maintain to be miracles) and yet disagree about the meaning of these miracles, and the implications of the events.

I think modern people - seeking faith but not really believing in the possibility of miracles - tend to assume that if they witnessed a miracle, or actually knew a living prophet and shared his experiences, that everything would become clear: faith would be easy, they would know what to do.

But the above examples show that this does not necessarily happen; that isn't actually the way humans behave.

The Crow said...

So, Bruce: a Christian is one who knows what can not be known. One who chooses to accept as truth a non-verifiable claim.
Jesus said it, so it must be true. Whereas if anyone else says it, it must not be true.

I offer a quoted comment here, from another site, which greatly interested me...

"Jesus is the son of man. To Him/it there is nothing that isn't man. Very few understand this, and very few of the ones who understand are 'christians'.

Man is an intuitive animal, and can commune with all things by simply letting reality enter into his being. Jesus understood this - but nobody understood Jesus.

Yeah, I walk a bit with Jesus myself. I hang out on the cross

But I don't really make a big fuss about it, and I very rarely speak about it, because almost nobody understands. I would call myself a christian if the world truly understood what that means, but since it doesn't, I don't. Words like 'christianity' only adds to the confusion."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - Not so. This is a matter of definitions. Believing and living by the fact that Jesus is the Son of God (hence divine) is (the minimal definition of) what a Christian is. If you don't, you aren't. The chap who wrote that quote isn't a Christian.

The 'verification' is multiple - His miracles, prophecies fulfilled, reason, modern miracles, prayers answered, personal transformations and of course the witness of the heart.

But of course this does not *compel* belief, nor is it intended to - not least because belief cannot be compelled, not real belief.

Jonathan C said...

What a captivating post. The parallel between Emerson and Smith, and their taking it in opposite directions, is a riveting idea.

But may I trouble you to answer a question? I'm struggling to understand this paragraph:

"But, on the other hand, a stripped-down New Age version of Emerson's spirituality of individualism and subjectivism has merged with mainstream secular Leftism, and grown and grown to become the dominant mode of thought in the West almost entirely discarding Emerson in the process."

What do you see as the defining properties of this individual/subjective, now-dominant mode of thought? It got into my head that if I want to understand Emerson's influence I should try to list them, but it made me realize that I honestly don't know.

Anonymous said...

On the negative side with regard to Emerson, he was a very negative influence on Proust (made him more secular than he should have been) and on Harold Bloom (encouraged his ridiculously anti-monotheistic attitudes).

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC - "What do you see as the defining properties of this individual/subjective, now-dominant mode of thought?"

It is the mainstream of New Age spirituality which can be seen on the 'Body, Mind, Spirit" shelves of bookstores. The major thrust is psychological and therapeutic - it is about creating happy and meaningful states of mind by whatever method works for that individual - usually an eclectic mixture. So there are themes about types of spiritually tinged psychotherapy (coming from Jung), Eastern religions and the mystical/ meditative traditions of Western religion, shamanism, witches/ wicca, historical spiritualities such as the celtic, native spiritualities especially Amerindian - plus all the artifacts like healing crystals, and practices such as drumming...

It really is a huge field. The unifying purpose is, as I said, self-manipulation - to learn what is effective in inducing the sought-after happy and meaning-filled states of mind. And this was, pretty much, what Emerson was doing also - and by his lecturing/ preaching and through his writing, this is what he did for others.

Anonymous said...

I think of German Romanticism as spawning a lot of the ills of the modern age, but Transcendentalism seems to the Anglophone version of the same thing- something that takes something authoritarian and strips it of all limits, and takes it to its ultimate end.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - Well, yes.

But from an artistic perspective there aren't many better than Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Robert Frost (probably the last of that line).

These (but not so much Frost) are prime exhibits in my thesis that the first transitional generation, those who abandon their strict religious upbringing, are often major geniuses - since they combine the orientating disciples of their youth with the specialization of their adulthood.

But such writers and thinkers are very deceptive, indeed dangerous, guides to life for the following generations, who lack the religious upbringing.